Are women in healthcare putting a strain on services?

For a correction to this column please see the note from the Medical Schools Council in the reader comments below

By coincidence I dined with an ex-NHS consultant the day after junior health minister Anna Soubry agreed with a Tory MP about women doctors contributing to staffing problems in the service.

My friend has recently retired at 58 because she’d simply had enough. She still does a little work for her old hospital but doesn’t need the money and wouldn’t dream of going back full-time. Hmm. Does that sound very bloke-ish?

All right, it’s just a story and the plural of anecdote is not data. But so vehement was the reaction that you’d have thought the minister and the MP whose mini-debate led to the fateful exchange - GP’s daughter and North Yorkshire’s Anne McIntosh - had suggested that women medics be forced to wear a burka. Yet such debate is easily found on the internet and elsewhere. What’s going on?

Rising expectations

My own hunch is that it’s about what historians call a revolution of rising expectations among women. Things are getting better, but not fast enough for some. At the same time, those expectations collide with practical realities, not least what Clare Gerada of the Royal College of GPs acknowledged only last month as the fact that “some women work part-time because they have babies” and put their careers on hold. It’s hardly a secret.

Yet Dr Clare (with whom Soubry has previously clashed on TV ) was one of the first to hammer the minister. That was surely unwise. Soubry is also part of that revolution, an ex-barrister and TV journalist, a single parent first elected on David Cameron’s A-list in 2010, made a minister in the Lansley/Hunt reshuffle last autumn.

‘You’d have thought the minister and the MP had suggested that women medics be forced to wear a burka’

Like Edwina Currie and Ann Widdecombe (Barbara Castle and Mrs T too in their day) she does not hesitate to speak her mind, draw attention to herself in a still-male arena if you prefer. Remember how Soubry defended assisted suicide within days of being promoted? Plenty of the Class of 2010 Tory women are chaffing at her heels, so this is no time for faint hearts.

Jeremy Hunt seems to trust her. Soubry was allowed to answer as many questions as the boss at the last health question time. In this case she fired off a letter to Dr Gerada, reminding her of what both women had said about the impact of part-time working on GP numbers and declaring herself a steadfast supporter of women’s rights both as an MP and trade unionist (sic).

Despite being hurt by Gerada’s “deeply offensive” comments to the contrary she offered to meet - “as I have no doubt you and I have a great deal in common”.

No backing down then, despite Tory grandee Andrew Mitchell’s wife and daughter (both doctors) joining the attack. Let’s draw a veil on the spat.

Service strain

But the gender issue does not go away when 70 per cent of medical students are now women, a 50 per cent increase since 2001. Since some estimates suggest a quarter work part-time during child-raising years and many leave the profession entirely, it must add to the strain on services offered to patients, not to mention the NHS’s budget because training docs is not cheap.

Whether feminisation also weakens the profession’s clout is another matter, although Dame Carol Black, then president of the Royal College of Physicians, raised it a decade ago.

There are politically sensitive topics we avoid discussing in our supposedly open society. The real irony of attention given Soubry’s cautious comment may be that it did Messrs Cameron and Hunt a favour. It stole headlines from Labour’s major debate the same day as the A&E crisis. Even Anne McIntosh’s debate was about the failing of the 111 helpline in rural areas. Well done, Battling Anna?

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian.